The diaspora question


When I first visited Lanka precisely three years ago (December 2011-January 2012) I was advised by an acquaintance in Colombo to use the word ‘diaspora’ with caution, as in the Sinhala majority South the word carries connotations of international support for anti-state terror. It seems diaspora has particular associations in the North as well. I was recently talking with a friend about her experiences growing up in Sri Lanka after being forced to leave Jaffna town in 1995 when the Sri Lankan Army took control from the L.T.T.E. After living for some time in other parts of the island followed by a stint studying abroad in Europe she recently returned to join her family, re-connecting with the Jaffna community and establishing a small feminist-focused space. Given her activities and appearance she mentioned how many locals initially thought of her as one of the ‘diaspora’, indicating their reservations and suggesting a derogatory use of the word by ‘Jaffna Tamils’. In this context diaspora may refer to those that have been ‘westernised’ or who had in other ways strayed from the particular values developed by Jaffna Tamils over generations of resistance; first to colonial occupation and later to Sinhala nationalism. Such defensiveness may have carried into the post-war period marked by an ongoing military presence as well as an influx of NGOs, diaspora returns and fears of ‘Southern colonisation’.

Discussion amongst friends as well as studies, such as those undertaken by anthropologist Jane Derges (2013, p. 31), concur that despite the radical youth movements in the 1960s and 1970s that confronted issues of class and caste, prevailing prejudices continue to cause a degree of discomfort amongst locals about the presence of outsiders. Scholars such as Radhika Coomaraswamy and Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham point to the L.T.T.E.’s strict enforcement of its hegemonic ordering of the Jaffna population by which the ‘option of multiple identities, cosmopolitanism, choice and a different way of being Tamil [was] not open’ (Coomaraswamy and Perera-Rajasingham 2009, p. 136). Although international Tamil communities’ have been supportive and provided remittances for ‘the movement’, under these circumstances it is possible that the westernised, liberally-minded diasporia presented a threat to the integrity of the L.T.T.E.’s definition and policing of Tamil nationalism.

As a cure to such conditioning I proffer the thinking of British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy, who claims diaspora as a useful concept to contest notions of nation and citizenship that are presented as being a ‘natural rather than as a social phenomena’ (Gilroy 2001, p.125). In his canonical work Against Race (2001) Gilroy indicates how the propensity of diasporas to negotiate around the coercive ordering of nationalisms is potentially subversive and can become ‘explicitly antinational’ (Gilroy 2001, p. 128).

(To be precise Gilroy expresses concern about the now common usage of the word diaspora to cover a wide range of migratory practices. He is emphatic that the term retain its associations with the Jewish experience of forced dispersal and flight as distinct from self-chosen and reversible experiences of displacement (Gilroy 2001, p. 123). That is, to distinguish the experiences of refugees from those of middle class professional migrants or practices of nomadism. Clearly I fall into the latter category, nevertheless my opinions are informed by the former.)

In post-war Lanka, can diaspora’s inclination to disorder nationalist agendas be utilised as an anti-hegemonic tool? How might the concept of diaspora be put to use across cultural practices in the Jaffna peninsula to contest the legacies of Tamil nationalism and Sinhala chauvinism and address the widespread disillusionment with the Rajapaksa government?

Whilst most of my experiences have been welcoming and hospitable, I have encountered some anxiety about diaspora Tamils such as myself returning to claim property and intervene. I also gather there is some local ambivalence towards elements of the diaspora’s interests to invest in or develop the local economy. One indicator of such attitudes might be read into the numerous guesthouses and hotels that have sprung up in the post-war period that are priced beyond the purse of most domestic tourists. Another is the talk amongst locals about a spike in land prices putting property ownership beyond their means. The owner of the guesthouse in which I regularly stay tells me that a degree of tourism has occurred, but not in a sufficient quantity to match the expectations of these developments. He qualifies that it is largely domestic tourism; Sinhala’s who have never traveled to the North and who are not likely to spend up on Western-style hotels and lodgings. During my intermittent stays at his house I have met several Sri Lankan Army officers returning with their families to sightsee, and at the time of writing the cast and crew of a local soap opera are occupying all the other rooms whilst shooting on location. Despite having found a successful niche, the owner tells me there is not much for tourists to do in Jaffna and I would agree. There is no nightlife to speak of and little is open in town after 9pm. I often joke that Jaffna seems livelier at 6am, soon after the numerous temples announce their first pujas with clanging bells before dawn. Recently in Colombo I caught up with an old family friend from Sydney who now runs a handful of resorts in Lanka from his base in Singapore. He agrees the coastline of the peninsular is exquisite, but confirms tourism has been slow. He suggests there is no local basis for the kinds of activities that attract tourists from the West and the lack of bureaucratic transparency and political corruption hampers development.


The Yaal Devi railway was re-opened earlier this year providing a fast and direct connection between Jaffna and Colombo. The whole of the month of December it has been impossible to purchase a ticket as seats have been reserved long in advance. Several daily buses shuttle people to and from the capital, although foreign nationals currently have to apply for a permit to visit the North due to heightened anxieties about political agitation in the lead-up to the January 2015 election. I wonder have these moves to make the peninsular more accessible sparked the local economy? I recall an early morning encounter with a resident in the vicinity of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple:

– Are you from Canada?
– No, but I have some family there.
– I hear work is good in Canada, but it is very cold.
– Yes it gets well below zero. How is work here?
– Slow. Everything in Jaffna is too slow.

A question I raised after my first visit to Jaffna in 2011 concerned the role of the diaspora now that the project of self-determination has been quashed? At the time I pressed a Canadian–Tamil working with an NGO in Batticaloa about the ‘diaspora question’: What is our role? What should we do? He appealed to those with a committed interest in the region and its people to help establish long term rehabilitation projects and to connect with people limited in the extreme, regardless of their race or ethnicity. This suggested to me an outwardly-orientated, post-race and non-governmental appeal that could negotiate nationalising forces (both Tamil and Sinhala) and open alternative pathways for community and development. Is it advisable in this context to re-visit and with caution retrieve the term ‘liberation’ from its associations with the ‘Tamil cause’ to instead encompass these broader ‘people-to-people’ concerns?


Semiotician and theorist of ‘decoloniality’ Walter Mignolo uses the term ‘liberation’ in preference to ‘emancipation’ due the latter’s association with European Enlightenment ideologies, which were effectively complicit with colonialism, and the former’s association with non-aligned anticolonial movements. He argues this choice of words in order to conceptually delink local progressive movements from ongoing colonial aspirations in the guise of modernity, to which I will add development (Mignolo 2007, p. 455). Alongside the ‘molecular transformations’ required to improve social equality, such as my friend’s feminist initiative, liberation also has economic connotations. Can the interest and concerns of a globalised Tamil community be harnessed to secure non-governmental assistance, capital investment and development that is consistent with local concerns? Despite ongoing suspicions of outside interference, can the diaspora be a constructive player in the current reformation of the North?

On Christmas eve I caught up with the Jaffna-based artist T. Shanaathanan. We sat in the dim courtyard of one of the few hotels in town with a liquor license, renown for its good food but terrible service. Swatting mosquitoes, we drank beer and ate naans with our mixed-up orders, talking at length in the otherwise empty premises.

Shanaathanan suggested that if I was really interested in how the diaspora were investing in Jaffna then I should look at temples. He claimed that money from abroad had significantly re-shaped the design and prominence of Hindu temples in the region and was possibly changing the kinds of rituals being conducted (an issue Jane Derges (2013) also raises in her study of thuukkukkaaddavi practices in Jaffna during the cease-fire). Shanaathanan noted earlier that evening that modernity in Sri Lanka was not met with a decline in religious practices but had rather proceeded to inform it. Given the season, one could argue that the postmodern and consumerist tradition of Christmas exemplifies a similar pattern in the West. However due to my lack of enthusiasm for religion I steered our conversation towards a different kind of cultural initiative that the artist established earlier this year with the New York based curator and publisher, Sharmini Perera. Set in a renovated traditional Jaffna house, the Sri Lankan Archive for Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design is a small library focused on Sri Lankan issues that has opened up a much needed platform for public discussion. The Archive seems in step with the kinds of artists’ libraries, bookshops and discursive spaces I frequent elsewhere in the world that present local issues in dialogue with global innovations. As I was unable to find such a space in Colombo, I was surprised to find one in the significantly less cosmopolitan Jaffna.


In an essay published some years ago Shanaathanan cites Stuart Hall’s argument that cultural identities are unstable points of identification that should be understood as positioning rather than essentialising individuals within discourses of history and culture (Shanaathanan 2009, p. 105). Whilst religious practices present the limits of my identification with Tamil culture, initiatives such as the Archive provide welcome points of contact for ‘westernised Tamils’ like myself to engage with these familiar but decidedly different cosmopolitanisms; with their different histories of modernity, perspectives and beliefs. These often speak to, and I would suggest even work around more prominent discourses emanating from the West, breathing further complexity to our imaginings of globalised culture.

Coomaraswamy, R. and Perera-Rajasingham, N., 2009. ‘Being Tamil in a different way: A feminist critique of the Tamil nation.’ In: Cheran, R. (ed.) Pathways of Dissent. SAGE Publications, New Delhi, California, London, Singapore, pp. 107–138.

Derges, Jane, 2013. Ritual and Recovery in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka. Routledge, London and New York.

Gilroy, Paul, 2001. Against Race: Imagining political culture beyond the colour line. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

Mignolo, Walter D., 2007. ‘De-linking: The rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality and the grammar of de-coloniality.’ Cultural Studies, vol. 21, iss. 2–3, pp. 449–514.

Shanaathanan, T., 2009. ‘Painting the Artist’s Self.’ In: Cheran, R. (ed.) Pathways of Dissent. SAGE Publications, New Delhi, California, London, Singapore, pp. 93–106.


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